No Petrol, No Cars: Cubans Turn To Electric Transport

Men ride on a bicitaxi in front of a graffiti depicting Argentine-born revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara, in a street of Havana, on June 16, 2022. (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP)



There is a new sight on the streets of Havana: increasing numbers of electric vehicles whizzing among the old American cars so emblematic of the Cuban capital.  

As fuel shortages and US sanctions take their toll, and even though electricity generation can be spotty, Cubans are turning to smaller, cheaper, plug-in alternatives.

“Gasoline? Imagine. After 50 years battling to get hold of it, I don’t even want to smell it anymore!” taxi driver Sixto Gonzalez, 58, told AFP atop the shining, electric-blue quadricycle with which he moves through the streets at a top speed of about 40 kilometers (25 miles) per hour.

Gonzalez has abandoned his old, combustion-engine car — one of about 600,000 registered on the island of 11.2 million people, according to official data.

The last time he tried to fill it up, he stood in a queue for eight hours.

By far the majority of cars in circulation in Cuba are American models from the 1950s — before sanctions started — and compact Ladas from the Soviet era.

Newer models are practically impossible to lay one’s hands on and come with a hefty price tag of between about $20,000 and $100,000.

The quadricycle Gonzalez bought, by comparison, can be obtained for between $4,000 and $8,000 and though slower, can get four or five people from Point A to Point B.

Also increasingly popular are electric motorbikes — of which there are an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 in Cuba — and three-wheelers all the more frequently seen dragging a carriage full of passengers or goods.

– ‘Museum on wheels’ –
In a once-abandoned Soviet-era truck factory in the central city of Santa Clara, about 100 workers of the company Minerva assemble electric vehicles with parts imported from China or Vietnam.

The objective for 2022 is to produce 10,000 electric motorbikes, Minerva boss Elier Perez told AFP — double the factory’s previous record — as well as 2,000 three-wheelers.

“I had to buy one because the fuel ran out and the queues are endless,” said Raul Suarez, a 52-year-old security guard who got himself an electric motorbike.

“I have to be able to get around.”

Not only are cars prohibitively expensive and scarce, but public transport in the capital is a daily ordeal for many.

Half of buses are out of service for a lack of tires and batteries that cannot be imported due to US sanctions, said transport ministry official Guillermo Gonzalez.

Havanans sometimes wait for hours for a bus to get to work or back home.

At the same time, fuel shortages have worsened since the US reinforced its six-decade-old economic blockade of the communist island in 2019, preventing the arrival of fuel tankers from Venezuela, a Cuban ally.

Petrol supply plummeted from 100,000 barrels a day to about 56,000 barrels per day on average in 2021, said Jorge Pinon, a Cuban energy policy expert at the University of Texas.

Three years ago, the government began to promote the use of electric cars, introducing them to state-owned companies to be used by workers.

“Cuba is a museum on wheels,” said Gonzalez of the abundance of decades-old gas guzzlers.

It is hoped that a rollout of electric cars will lower “fuel consumption… and at the same time reduce pollution,” he added.

– Like a fridge –
But electricity supply, too, is a concern.

For weeks now, Cubans have had to deal with regular cuts, sometimes lasting hours at a time, due to generation failures and maintenance work on thermoelectric plants.

And in a bid to make up some of the shortage, the authorities have turned to generators that use up much of the limited diesel stock.

“There has never been a situation as difficult as the one we have now, and there are still three months of summer to come,” said Pinon, alluding to the annual warm-weather rise in demand for energy to run air conditioners.

Ramses Calzadilla, director of strategy at Cuba’s energy ministry, said he was confident that electricity generation would be restored to full capacity shortly and insisted the situation did not threaten the burgeoning electric vehicle sector.

“An electric motorcycle uses about as much energy as a refrigerator,” he told AFP, and can be charged quickly and cheaply between programmed power cuts.

US Announces Easing Visa, Family Remittance Restrictions For Cuba

This photo illustration shows a visa stamp on a foreign passport in Los Angeles on June 6, 2020. Chris DELMAS / AFP



The United States said Monday it is easing restrictions imposed during former president Donald Trump’s administration on travel to Cuba and on the sending of family remittances between the United States and the communist island.

“The Cuban people are confronting an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and our policy will continue to focus on empowering the Cuban people to help them create a future free from repression and economic suffering,” the State Department said.

The loosening of the embargo on Cuba will see increased visa processing, including at the Havana consulate, but with most visas still handled at the US embassy in Guyana.

The statement said it will “facilitate educational connections” between the two countries, as well as support for professional research including “support for expanded internet access and remittance process companies.”

To boost the flow of remittances, the US government will lift the current limit of $1,000 per quarter for each sender, and also allow non-family remittances to “support independent Cuban entrepreneurs.”

It said it would increase the number of flights permitted between the US and the Caribbean island, and serving cities other than the capital Havana. It will also allow certain group visits, which are currently forbidden.

Cuba’s foreign minister, Bruno Rodriguez, tweeted that the move was “a small step in the right direction,” but emphasized that it does “not modify the embargo” in place since 1962.

“Neither the objectives nor the main instruments of the United States’ policy against Cuba, which is a failure, are changing,” he wrote.

US Senator Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a member of President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party, denounced the lifting of some restrictions, saying that the Cuban regime “continues its ruthless persecution of countless Cubans from all walks of life” following unprecedented street protests last year.

The easing of travel “risks sending the wrong message to the wrong people, at the wrong time and for all the wrong reasons,” he said in a statement. “Those who still believe that increasing travel will breed democracy in Cuba are simply in a state of denial. For decades, the world has been traveling to Cuba and nothing has changed.”

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban heritage, also slammed the announcement, saying on Twitter that the Cuban regime “threatened Biden with mass migration and have sympathizers inside the administration.”

He said “the result is today we see the first steps back to the failed Obama policy on Cuba,” referring to former president Barack Obama’s thaw in relations with Havana, including a visit there in 2016.

Biden is seeking to tread a fine line between helping ordinary Cubans and encouraging democratic developments while not allowing the Communist regime to benefit from any easing of restrictions.

A senior administration official said Monday it was a “coincidence” that the announcement came just after Mexico said it would boycott the next Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles following Cuba’s complaints of being excluded from the meeting.

“The measures today are practical steps that we are taking to address the humanitarian situation and to respond to the needs of the Cuban people,” the official said.

The thaw comes in the wake of a series of mysterious illnesses suffered by US personnel and family members in Cuba in what has come to be known as “Havana Syndrome.”

US officials say they have yet to determine exactly what happened in the incidents but a senior official told reporters that there is an “appropriate security posture.”

Cuba Declares 42 Hours Of Mourning For Hotel Blast Deaths

Firefighters and rescue workers remove debris from the ruins of the Saratoga Hotel, in Havana, on May 8, 2022. (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP)



Cuba on Thursday announced 42 hours of mourning for the 45 people killed in an explosion at a hotel in Havana last week.

The period of mourning will begin at dawn on Friday and last until midnight on Saturday.

A statement read out on state television gave the latest death toll of “44 compatriots and a Spanish citizen,” while announcing the period of mourning.

Cuba’s flag is due “to fly at half mast on public buildings and military institutions,” added the statement.

The announcement was made shortly after fire brigade chief Luis Carlos Guzman told reporters that the last dead body had been pulled from the rubble of the iconic Saratoga hotel in Havana’s historic quarter.

Guzman said it had been “a very risky” operation to pull out the final body, that of a hotel employee, from the wreckage.

Amongst the dead were four minors, a pregnant woman and the 29-year-old Spanish tourist.

Another 54 people were injured in the blast, believed to have been caused by gas, according to the Public Health Ministry.

Of those, 16 remain in hospital, including four children, two of whom are in a critical condition.

The blast tore off large parts of the facade, blew out windows and destroyed cars parked outside the hotel.

The luxury property is known for having hosted celebrities such as Madonna, Beyonce and Mick Jagger.

Death Toll Climbs To 22 In Cuba Hotel Blast

Firefighters and rescue workers remove debris from the ruins of the Saratoga Hotel, in Havana, on May 6, 2022. ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP


A powerful explosion due to a suspected gas leak ripped through a luxury hotel in central Havana, killing at least 22 people Friday, according to official tallies.

Rescuers pulled four bodies out of the rubble in the early evening as they combed through what remained of the prestigious Saratoga Hotel looking for survivors.

At least one woman with whom rescuers made contact was alive in the debris, officials said, adding they believed more survivors were still trapped and that a canine squad was searching them out.

Cuba’s president attributed the massive blast to a gas leak.

“It was neither a bomb nor an attack, it was an unfortunate accident,” said Miguel Diaz-Canel, who arrived at the scene an hour after the blast, accompanied by the prime minister and National Assembly president.

“Compatriots and friends around the world. #Havana is in shock today,” he tweeted.

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The latest death toll of 22, which includes at least one child, was announced on television news after a day in which ambulances and paramedics raced through the center of Cuba’s historic capital.

Both the health ministry and the Cuban presidency said dozens had been injured but cited different numbers, ranging from 50 to 65 people.

The first four floors of the establishment, which were closed to guests while being renovated, were gutted in the late-morning blast that sent a cloud of dust and smoke billowing into the air.

The explosion also tore off large parts of the facade, blew out windows, and destroyed cars parked outside the five-star hotel, which has in the past hosted celebrities such as Madonna, Beyonce, Mick Jagger, and Rihanna.

The dome of a nearby Baptist church also collapsed.

Inside the hotel at the time were employees preparing for its post-refurbishment reopening, scheduled for next Tuesday.

Miguel Hernan Estevez, director of the hospital Hermanos Almejeiras, said a two-year-old boy had undergone surgery for a fractured skull.

“So far we have no information that any foreigner was either injured or killed, but… this is preliminary information,” added Tourism Minister Juan Carlos Garcia Granda.

 Not a Bomb 

Firefighters and rescue workers remove debris from the ruins of the Saratoga Hotel, in Havana, on May 6, 2022.  ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP


Roberto Calzadilla of state company Gaviota, which owns the hotel, said the explosion happened while a gas tank was being refilled.

Ambulances and fire trucks rushed to the scene Friday and police cordoned off the area, dispersing people who swarmed to the hotel near Havana’s emblematic National Capitol Building that housed Congress prior to the Cuban revolution.

It is also next to a school, but no pupils were injured, according to the presidency.

Rogelio Garcia, a bicycle taxi driver who was passing the hotel at the time of the blast recounted that “we felt a huge explosion and (saw) a cloud of dust… many people ran out.”

“There was a terrible explosion and everything collapsed,” said a woman, her face covered in dust, who declined to give her name.

According to the website of the Saratoga Hotel, it is an upmarket establishment with 96 rooms, two bars, two restaurants, a spa, and gym.

It was built in 1880 to house shops and converted into a hotel in 1933.

“The United States sends heartfelt condolences to all of those affected by the tragic explosion this morning,” said US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Twitter.

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, meanwhile, said President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador would not cancel a trip to Cuba planned for Sunday.

“Our sympathy goes out to the victims and those affected, as well as to the people of our dear sister nation,” Ebrard tweeted.

Condolences also poured in from Bolivia, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Nicolas Maduro, the president of close Cuban ally Venezuela, who said: “the Cuban people have the solidarity and support of all the peoples of the world” and especially Venezuelans.


Cuba Sentences Protester To Five Years For ‘Enemy Propaganda’

Aerial view Havana capital city of Cuba, on March 22, 2022. PHOTO: YAMIL LAGE / AFP


A Cuban man who staged a rare protest over the detention of a dissident rapper has been slapped with a five-year prison term for disobedience and “enemy propaganda,” according to a sentencing document seen by AFP on Wednesday night.

In December 2020, Luis Robles took to a central street in Havana with a handwritten sign reading: “Freedom, no more repression / free Denis” — referring to the jailing of Cuban rapper and activist Denis Solis over a music video about repression on the island.

Robles, 29, was arrested and has been in prison since.

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“The accused Luis Robles Elizástegui is sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for the crimes of enemy propaganda and disobedience committed intentionally,” the court document dated March 28 states.

On Twitter, the Madrid-based Cuban Human Rights Observatory denounced the verdict as another example of Cuba’s communist government “unjustly punish(ing) a young Cuban for exercising his rights to free demonstration and expression.”

Solis was reportedly given an eight-month sentence for contempt and released on July 21 2021, the day after unprecedented anti-government demonstrations erupted over price increases and food shortages as Cuba reeled from its worst economic crisis in almost 30 years.

Capturing international attention and defying a ban on unauthorized gatherings, thousands of people across the Caribbean island joined the summer protests, many chanting “we are hungry.”

The ensuing police crackdown left one dead and led to more than 1,300 arrests, with 728 people still behind bars, according to the Miami-based human rights organization Cubalex. Some face 30-year sentences on charges such as sedition and public disorder.

Cuba has denied holding political prisoners, and claims the protests were a Washington-backed conspiracy.


US Urges Cuba To Lift Protest Ban Ahead Of Demonstrations

US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken


The United States urged Cuban authorities on Sunday to lift a ban on protests ahead of planned anti-government demonstrations, the State Department said in a statement.

“We call on the Cuban government to respect Cubans’ rights, by allowing them to peacefully assemble and use their voices without fear of government reprisal or violence, and by keeping Internet and telecommunication lines open for the free exchange of information,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

Cuba’s opposition has called for demonstrations in Havana and six provinces on Monday — which have been prohibited by the communist authorities — to call for the release of political prisoners.

More than 1,200 people were arrested during history-making protests in July, with more than 650 of them still in detention, according to NGO Cubalex.

Blinken hit out at the Cuban government’s crackdown on the protests and condemned “intimidation tactics” of blocking protests, firing opposition supporters and threatening them with detention ahead of Monday’s demonstrations.

“We urge the Cuban government to reject violence, and instead, embrace this historic opportunity to listen to the voices of their people,” Blinken said, calling on other democratic states to “echo our support for Cuban demonstrators.”

He added the United States will continue to “promote accountability for the Cuban regime’s repression and human rights violations.”

Havana has accused Washington of backing the protests in an effort to destabilize the Cuban government.

HRW Accuses Cuba Of Widespread Abuses After Street Protests

(FILES) In this file photo taken on July 11, 2021, a man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana. YAMIL LAGE / AFP


Human Rights Watch accused the Cuban government Tuesday of arresting people arbitrarily, mistreating detainees and holding sham trials in revenge for unprecedented street protests that erupted across the country this summer.

“When thousands of Cubans took to the streets in July, the Cuban government responded with a brutal strategy of repression designed to instill fear and suppress dissent,” HRW researcher Juan Pappier wrote in the report.

Cuban authorities have arrested more than 1,000 people as part of a wave of repression, said HRW, quoting a Cuban NGO called Cubalex.

“The goal for the regime was to make fear more powerful than people’s desperation,” Pappier told AFP.

On July 11 thousands of Cubans took to the streets in some 50 locations to protest harsh living conditions and repressive government on the communist-run island.

The rallies had no precedent since the Cuban revolution of 1959 and left at least one person dead and dozens injured as security forces cracked down.

Since then, peaceful demonstrators and other critics of the government have been arrested, held without due process and subjected to sham trials, HRW said.

The report documented in detail violations against 130 people across Cuba. In most cases, these people were interrogated repeatedly.

Some detainees were denied sleep or beaten while others were threatened with reprisals against them or their families for having protested, the report said.

Gabriela Zequeira Hernandez, a 17-year-old student, told HRW that she was arrested in Havana while walking past a demonstration on the day of the protests.

She said two female officers made her squat down on the ground naked five times and cough while pressing against her stomach to see if anything came out of her body. One of them made her probe her own vagina with her finger.

From July to October, HRW interviewed more than 150 people including activists, victims of abuse, relatives and lawyers with direct knowledge of the events. HRW also examined court documents and corroborated many videos and photos.

Protesters plan to take to the streets again on November 15 to stage demonstrations that the government has already declared illegal.

“Then we will see if the regime’s strategy of fear has worked,” said Pappier.

US Sanctions Cuba For Repressing Protests, Biden Warns More To Come

In this file photo a man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. YAMIL LAGE / AFP


The United States imposed sanctions on Cuba’s defense minister and a special forces unit Thursday for repressing peaceful protests, a step President Joe Biden warned is “just the beginning” of punitive measures against Havana.

The US Treasury Department said its Office of Foreign Assets Control froze the assets of minister Alvaro Lopez Miera and the Special National Brigade (SNB), a division of Cuba’s interior ministry, in relation to human rights abuses committed during a crackdown on protests on the island earlier in July.

“This is just the beginning — the United States will continue to sanction individuals responsible for oppression of the Cuban people,” Biden said in a statement.

The sanctions were imposed under the Magnitsky act, which allows a US president to take action against human rights abuses and corruption.

People in Caracas demonstrate in support of the Cuban government and their supporters, outside the Cuban embassy in the Venezuelan capital on July 12, 2021.  Federico PARRA / AFP


Biden said his administration targeted Lopez Miera and the SNB — a special forces unit nicknamed the Black Berets — because they were “driving the crackdown” against protesters who took to the streets by the thousands in rare public demonstrations against the communist government.

“As we hold the Cuban regime accountable, our support for the Cuban people is unwavering,” Biden said.

The president also condemned what he called “the mass detentions and sham trials” used to imprison and silence outspoken Cubans.

Cuba pushed back swiftly, calling the sanctions “slanderous” and saying the United States should focus more on repression and police brutality on its own soil.

“I reject unfounded and slanderous sanctions by the US government” against the Cubans targeted, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Twitter.

The sanctions freeze all Lopez Miera and SNB assets and interests in the United States, as well as prohibit any US citizen, resident or entity from engaging with them financially.

“Treasury will continue to enforce its Cuba-related sanctions, including those imposed today, to support the people of Cuba in their quest for democracy and relief from the Cuban regime,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said.

Biden, for his part, said Washington was considering multiple new steps.

The United States is working closely with regional partners like the Organization of American States “to pressure the regime to immediately release wrongfully detained political prisoners, restore internet access and allow the Cuban people to enjoy their fundamental rights,” he said.

Washington is also reassessing its policy guiding remittances to Cuba, with the State Department expressing concern that such funds could “find their way into Cuban government coffers,” according to spokesman Ned Price.

Washington will “continue to review what more we can do” to support the Cuban people while holding the nation’s authorities to account, Price said.

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 ‘Weak response’ 

Demonstrators hold placards during a rally held in solidarity with anti-government protests in Cuba, in Times Square, New York on July 13, 2021. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP)


On July 11 and 12, thousands of Cubans took to the streets in 40 cities shouting “Freedom,” “Down with the dictatorship,” and “We’re hungry.”

One person has died and more than 100 have been arrested since the protests broke out over the worst economic crisis in decades.

According to the Treasury Department, Cuba’s defense ministry and security services attacked people and “arrested or disappeared over 100 protesters in an attempt to suppress these protests.”

The demonstrations have further strained an already tense relationship between Washington and Havana.

Cuba has seen a whiplash in US policy in recent years, with former president Barack Obama normalizing relations at the end of his term, declaring that a half-century of efforts to topple the regime had failed, and then his successor Donald Trump reimposing sweeping economic pressure.

Biden as president had exhibited a go-slow approach to Cuba, but the unrest has thrust the relationship into a spotlight.

Several US lawmakers, including Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, applauded the administration’s sanctions.

For some Republicans it was not enough.

Senator Roger Wicker tweeted on Thursday he was “disappointed in the weak response from (Biden) and @StateDept as the Cuban people cry out for help.”


After Unprecedented Protests, What Next For Cuba?

People take part in a demonstration to support the government of the Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. YAMIL LAGE / AFP
People take part in a demonstration to support the government of the Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. YAMIL LAGE / AFP



A week after unprecedented anti-government protests in communist Cuba, a superficial calm appears to have returned to the island.

But experts told AFP discontent will continue simmering unless people see a clear improvement to their economic conditions and political rights.

Analysts look at possible scenarios for the future.

– Clampdown? –
With cries of “we are hungry,” “down with the dictatorship,” and “freedom,” the July 11 protests erupted spontaneously in the town of San Antonio de los Banos before spreading like wildfire to some 40 other locations, including the capital Havana.

The protests lasted little over a day, resulting in one death, dozens of injured and more than 100 arrests.

Cuban political scientist Rafael Hernandez foresees that the communist authorities, used to controlling all aspects of life in Cuba, will now seek to identify and keep a close eye on political opponents.

“I would expect that they will keep them under strict surveillance and should they make a new call to action, arrest them,” he said.

Rafael Rojas, a Cuban historian living in Mexico, said there would be a “process of neutralization” of those behind the protests.

“An operation has been launched to identify possible leaders.”

This may not be enough to avoid “a new social explosion, but perhaps not of the dimensions we saw,” said Rojas, adding any future outbursts are likely to be “more localized.”

– Economic reform? –
The protests were largely driven by a population fed up with food and medicine shortages amid a spike in Cuba’s coronavirus epidemic and the effects of its worst economic crisis in 30 years.

Three days after the demonstrations, President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced measures seeking to calm the mood, granting permission for people to bring food and medicine into the country without paying import duties.

Hernandez said the government would likely take further emergency measures to soften the blow of the economic crisis.

But it is the economy itself that needs boosting, particularly by loosening the grip on private enterprise so as to bolster growth and employment.

Earlier this year, the government expanded the number of activities in which private entrepreneurs are allowed to operate, and gave the provisional green light for small and medium enterprises, though limited to some sectors.

The government is historically the biggest employer in Cuba.

Havana was employing “a tactic of slowly loosening up to release pressure,” said Mauricio de Miranda Parrondo, an economist at the Pontifical Javeriana University in Cali, Colombia.

But “this is a failed tactic because it does not strategically solve the country’s problems,” he added.

– Political freedoms? –
The Cuban government has similarly made nods to greater political freedoms.

Yet, after a few hundred artists and intellectuals held a rare free speech protest outside the culture ministry in Havana, many saw themselves relegated to their homes by police, and their communications cut.

A new Cuban constitution approved in 2019 recognizes the rights to free expression, public protest and membership of civil associations, but without obvious ways for people to assert them.

Undertaking reforms “of civil rights seems to me will be welcomed as much outside of Cuba as in it,” said Rojas.

– Better US ties? –
One of the key contributors to Cuba’s dramatic economic collapse is the toughening of US sanctions during the administration of Donald Trump after years of appeasement and relaxation of the blockade under his predecessor Barack Obama.

Cuba has been under US sanctions since 1962 and had been hoping for a relaxation under Joe Biden, which has not come.

While Biden had promised on the campaign trail to bring back some of Obama’s policies and to seek a normalization of ties, his administration has yet to reverse Trump’s last-minute redesignation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.

And a quest for a better relationship may have been hampered by Havana’s response to the biggest protests since the Cuban revolution of the 1950s that brought Fidel Castro to power — with the authorities arresting dozens. Many are still being held.

Last week, Biden said of the events: “Cuba is unfortunately a failed state, and (is) repressing their citizens.

“There are a number of things that we would consider doing to help the people of Cuba, but it would require a different circumstance or a guarantee that they would not be taken advantage of by the government.”

– Exodus? –
The last major protests in Cuba were in 1994. Those were also against economic hardship but were limited to the capital and quickly put down by police.

At the time, some 34,000 Cubans left the island for the United States within a month — with permission from Havana.

The migrants were welcomed in Florida in 1994, but this time, the United States has said it would not accept a repeat.

De Miranda, the economist, said the coronavirus pandemic makes mass migration unlikely anyway, and the Cuban government was unlikely to allow a mass exit of its citizens this time round for fear of further irking Washington.

Cuban Government Blames Twitter For Unrest

Women use their phones in a street of Havana, on July 14, 2021. – Cuban authorities restored internet access on Wednesday following three days of interruptions after unprecedented protests erupted over the weekend. (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP)



Unprecedented anti-government protests broke out in Cuba on July 11, which the single-party state leadership blames on a Twitter campaign orchestrated by the United States.

But experts say that view is at best an exaggeration.

“I have irrefutable proof that the majority of those that took part in this (internet) campaign were in the United States and used automated systems to make content go viral, without being penalized by Twitter,” Cuba’s Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodriguez said Tuesday.

Rodriguez had already denied that the island nation experienced a “social explosion” when thousands of people took to the streets chanting “Freedom!” and “Down with the dictatorship!”

The minister called it a “communication and information war against Cuba.”

So who is to blame? Authorities point to the hashtag #SOSCuba, launched in early July to highlight Cuba’s healthcare crisis, the spike in Covid-19 cases, and to plead for foreign humanitarian aid.

Spanish social media expert Julian Macias Tovar, who was invited to speak on Cuban state television on Tuesday, says there is something strange in the figures around the hashtag.

“Between July 5, when the #SOSCuba hashtag was first used, and the eighth, there were just 5,000 tweets,” Macias Tovar told AFP.

It then exploded exponentially, he said, with 100,000 tweets on July 9, 500,00 on the 10th, 1.5 million the next day and two million on the 12th.


A young man uses his phone in a street of Havana, on July 14, 2021. – Cuban authorities restored internet access on Wednesday following three days of interruptions after unprecedented protests erupted over the weekend, AFP journalists said.
 (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP)


– Attack on the left –
The accounts tweeting with the #SOSCuba hashtag “came from many different places, and I believe there’s an international network of accounts linked ideologically,” said Macias Tovar.

They are the same accounts that attacked Mexico’s leftist president Andres Manuel Lopez and the leftist governments of Argentina and Spain, he said.

This is a case of fake accounts or automated accounts programmed to produce a large number of tweets, Macias Tovar said.

Doug Madory, the director of internet analysis at the IT firm Kentik, is more skeptical.

“Someone sends a tweet in the United States that puts people on the streets in Cuba? I find it hard to believe,” he said.

“I don’t know if one could sit and try to create a Twitter campaign that holds such sway over the average Cuban that out of the air they convince them to do things they wouldn’t otherwise have done.”

While he acknowledged there were automated tweets, it is “probably true also of the government themselves” given the similarity between tweets from its supporters.

On top of that, the government holds the ultimate weapon: it can cut off internet access, as it did between midday Sunday and Wednesday morning.

Once access was restored, social media sites remained offline for another 24 hours.


Women use their phones in a street of Havana, on July 14, 2021. (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP)


– ‘War against Cuba’ –
The government has not confirmed it cut off internet access, although Rodriguez said Cuba had “a right to self-defense.”

But on Tuesday night a presenter on state TV let slip the truth.

“I understand as a journalist … the step taken to cut social media because that is where the war against Cuba is being waged,” said presenter Arleen Rodriguez Derivet.

According to Cuban political scientist Harold Cardenas, “it would be a simplification to say it’s a US campaign because there are obviously many other reasons behind the protests.”


Naima Pineda gestures as she protests to show support for Cubans demonstrating against their government, in Miami, on July 14, 2021. – One person has died and more than 100 were arrested, including independent journalists and opposition activists, since the anti-government protests broke out in the communist-ruled island over the worst economic crisis in decades. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP)


For example, he said, “I know communists that were detained the other day for taking part in protests.

“That’s not to say that the United States has no responsibility in the unrest” through its sanctions that “intentionally asphyxiate the Cuban people.”

It is true that social media has been “used to create parallel realities,” since there has been an avalanche of fake news and doctored images shared in Cuba over recent days.

“There has been an effort from abroad to create uncertainty in the country,” said Cardenas.


A woman uses her phone in a street of Havana, on July 14, 2021.  (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP)


But the government is “attributing an exaggerated importance to Twitter,” and people are genuinely “fed up and economically exhausted.”

Macias Tovar agrees with Cardenas. “Beyond this being a campaign orchestrated” from abroad, he said, “there are people who are mobilizing, people who are demonstrating against the government, people who have petitions — what the Cuban government must do is respect the right to protest.”




Cuba Restores Internet Access After Protests, But Not Social Media

People walk along a street of Havana, on July 14, 2021. – One person has died in the anti-government protests across Cuba, according to officials, with activists saying at least 100 people have been arrested and scores remain in detention as demonstrations overseas in solidarity continued. (Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP)




Cuban authorities restored internet access on Wednesday following three days of interruptions after unprecedented protests erupted over the weekend, AFP journalists said.

Access to social media and messaging apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter remained blocked on 3G and 4G, however.

Social media is the only way Cubans can access independent media, while messaging apps are their main means of communicating amongst themselves.

One person has died and more than 100 were arrested, including independent journalists and opposition activists, since the anti-government protests broke out in the communist-ruled island over the worst economic crisis in decades.

Web monitoring group NetBlocks reported disruptions from Monday in Cuba on major social media and communications platforms.

Cuba was quick to blame a half-century of US economic pressure for the crisis, but the downturn also comes amid strict measures against Covid-19 and an uptick in cases.

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez on Tuesday said the United States had incited social unrest through a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #SOSCuba.


Demonstrators hold placards during a rally held in solidarity with anti-government protests in Cuba, in Times Square, New York on July 13, 2021. – One person died and more than 100 others, including independent journalists and dissidents, have been arrested after unprecedented anti-government protests in Cuba, with some remaining in custody on Tuesday, observers and activists said. (Photo by Ed JONES / AFP)


“It’s true that we don’t have mobile internet, but we’re also lacking medicines,” Rodriguez said.

“I have to tell you, Cuba will not renounce its right to self-defense.”

The US on Tuesday urged Cuba to end the internet restrictions and demonstrate “respect for the voice of the people by opening all means of communication, both online and offline.”

Streets in the capital Havana were calm on Wednesday, but there was a visibly larger security presence, particularly around the parliament building, where protesters shouting “Down with the dictatorship,” “Freedom” and “We’re hungry” gathered on Sunday.

New calls went out on social media on Tuesday for a protest outside the parliament building, which was surrounded by police vehicles.

NetBlocks said some Cubans have been able to get around the internet restrictions by using virtual private networks, or VPNs.

Rare Anti-Government Protests Erupt In Cuba

People take part in a demonstration to support the government of the Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. YAMIL LAGE / AFP
People take part in a demonstration to support the government of the Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. YAMIL LAGE / AFP


Thousands of Cubans took part in rare protests Sunday against the communist government, chanting, “Down with the dictatorship,” as President Miguel Diaz-Canel called on his supporters to confront the demonstrators.

The anti-government rallies started spontaneously in several cities as the country endures its worst economic crisis in 30 years, with chronic shortages of electricity and food.

Several hundred protesters marched through the capital Havana chanting, “We want liberty,” with a heavy military and police presence deployed after demonstrators massed outside the Capitol building.

Police used tear gas to disperse crowds, and at least ten people were arrested, while officers used plastic pipes to beat protesters, AFP journalists witnessed.

Several thousand protesters — mainly young people — also took to the streets of San Antonio de los Banos, a town 30 kilometers (20 miles) southwest of Havana.

Security forces arrived soon after the protests began, and Diaz-Canel later visited the town himself surrounded by party activists as residents heckled him, according to videos posted online.

The president delivered a combative television address, saying: “The order to fight has been given — into the street, revolutionaries!”

“We call on all revolutionaries of the country, all communists, to go out in the streets where these provocations occur… and to face them in a decisive, firm and courageous way.”

Government supporters held some counter-demonstrations in Havana.

Social media showed several anti-government protests around the country, and mobile internet — only introduced in Cuba since 2018 — was largely cut off on Sunday afternoon.

The United States reacted swiftly to the day’s events.

“The US supports freedom of expression and assembly across Cuba, and would strongly condemn any violence or targeting of peaceful protesters who are exercising their universal rights,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on Twitter.

Boiling public anger

One local in San Antonio de los Banos, on condition of anonymity, told AFP that she participated in the demonstration as she was exasperated by “the situation with electricity and food.”

Public anger has been driven by long food lines, worsening power shortages for several hours a day and a critical shortage of medicines since the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, with Cuba under US sanctions.

Cuba is experiencing its toughest phase yet of the coronavirus epidemic, and on Sunday reported a new daily record of infections and deaths.

“The energy situation seems to have produced some reaction,” Diaz-Canel told reporters in San Antonio de los Banos, blaming US sanctions imposed by Donald Trump and left unchanged by President Joe Biden.

He accused “a Cuban-American mafia” of whipping up the protests on social media.

“People have come to express their dissatisfaction with the situation they are living in,” he acknowledged.

Diaz-Canel has been president since 2018, succeeding Raul Castro, who served as leader after his brother Fidel Castro.

The only authorized gatherings in Cuba are normally Communist Party events.

The country of 11.2 million people was left relatively unscathed in the first months of the Covid outbreak but has seen a recent hike in infections, with a new record of 6,923 daily cases reported Sunday and 47 deaths for a total of 1,537.

“These are alarming numbers which are increasing daily,” said Francisco Duran, head of epidemiology in the health ministry.

Under hashtags such as #SOSCuba, calls for assistance have multiplied on social media, with citizens and music stars alike urging the government to make it possible for much-needed foreign donations to enter the country.

An opposition group called Saturday for the creation of a “humanitarian corridor,” an initiative the government rejected by saying Cuba was not a conflict zone.

Ernesto Soberon, a foreign affairs official, denounced a “campaign” he said sought to “portray an image of total chaos in the country which does not correspond to the situation.”